Daniel J. Phillips, M.Div.


Part One:
Basic Issues in Bible Reading

All Christians claim to be people who believe in and love the Lord Jesus Christ. This, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a "Christian." From this premise, it should follow that all Christians will be gripped by Jesus’ declaration concerning how to enjoy a true and growing relationship with Him:

Therefore, He was saying to the Jews who had believed Him, "If you remain in My word, truly you are My students.1 32And you will know the truth, and the truth will free you."

Jesus says that the proof of discipleship is whether someone remains, or continues, in His Word. Only those who do continue are. genuine disciples, and know His freeing truth.

For this reason, it is of the highest importance that we who claim to love Jesus continue in His Word. What is His "Word"? The only form in which we have the Word of Jesus is in the Scriptures. The conclusion is inescapable: if we want to be genuine disciples, knowing Jesus and His truth, we must be students of Scripture.

However, any new Bible reader knows that the Bible is a book full of challenges. It is not laid out or put together like books by Tom Clancy, Stephen King, or Doctor Seuss! This reflects the fact that, to us twentieth-century Americans, the Bible is essentially a foreign book — translated into our language, but still quite different from the books that we are probably accustomed to reading.

Not only is the Bible a foreign book; indeed, it is a library of foreign books. There are stories, letters, poems, songs. There is humor, horror, mystery, tragedy, bright hope. We find love stories, broken marriages, crime dramas, political intrigue, war sagas; pastiches, cameos, and portraits. Parts of the Bible are as literal and specific as a legal contract; others are filled with brilliant and visionary imagery. Some sections are simply impossible to misunderstand; others seem simply impossible to understand!

This book, however, is different from all others in that it is the Word of God.2 In it, and in it alone, we find revealed the mind, the will, and the meaning of the mighty works of God. This is why we do not have the luxury of allowing the difficult aspects of Bible reading to prevent us from devoting ourselves to earnest, regular Bible study. That, plus the fact that Jesus has told us that this is the only path to genuine discipleship, knowledge of the truth, and freedom.

We see, then, how important it is that we not only begin, but continue in that Book. What we think of God, of ourselves, and of our world; how we think, and make the most important decisions of life — all this and more hangs on our ability to read and understand the Bible. It is easy to see, then, that the way we go about reading the Bible makes all the difference in our world.

If you are just beginning to study the Bible, a number of the Bible’s features are likely to puzzle you. Let me treat them briefly, one by one. We will use a question-answer format. This paper is designed to help you with both the theory and brass-tacks of appreciating and understanding the Bible.


Questions About the Bible

1. "What was the original Bible?"

It is very important to realize that the books of the Bible were not originally written in English. Not one word!

Almost all of the Old Testament (hereafter called OT, and meaning the thirty-none books from Genesis to Malachi) was originally written in Hebrew. Hebrew is very different from English, both in terms of its alphabet and vocabulary, and in terms of its grammar. A small portion of the OT was written in Aramaic, a language akin to Hebrew.

All of the New Testament (hereafter called NT, and meaning the twenty-seven books from Matthew through Revelation) was written in a dialect of Greek known as Koin  (pronounced coy-NAY), or "Common" Greek. English has Greek in its roots, so the languages are more similar than English and Hebrew. Still, however, the two languages are entirely different.


2. "Do I need to study Greek and Hebrew in order to read and understand the Bible?"

Absolutely not. As I shall discuss below, a solid and responsible translation will communicate to you all the basic ideas of the Bible.

It is, however, essential that you attend a church whose pastor is well-taught in Hebrew and Greek, and who regularly studies the original texts. Why? Because his primary function is to teach you God’s Word (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 4:1, 2, among many others). He is to be a specialist in the Bible (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2b; 2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 1:9). He cannot be a "specialist" if he is not a student of the Bible in its original languages. In fact, you should think of a pastor as an Instructor in Ancient Hebrew and Greek Literature, for this is what he must be — among other things. In this light, the importance of the languages will become immediately apparent. Only thus can he be a voice for God, and not a pale echo of others.

Without knowledge of the Bible’s languages, the pastor will be simply guessing at the meaning of individual Scriptures, right along with the people who have a right to look to him for authoritative and solid help. When translations differ, he will have no solid way of choosing the better version. He will be, at best, reading books by writers who themselves know the languages, looking at various translations, and flipping a coin to guess at the exact meaning of the original text. He will be like someone teaching a doctoral course on French Literature… without ever having studied French!

You may well find it difficult to locate such a pastor. This is because churchgoers have come to look on the quality of Bible teaching in a church as a very low-priority concern, ranking well behind architecture, quality of music and other forms of entertainment, and the presence of various special-interest social groups. Therefore, prospective pastors in training schools know that virtually no one will ever even ask them whether they have studied Greek and Hebrew. For this reason, they never undertake the discipline, and are not weeded out by the training process.

However, if you want to be equipped so that you may mature (Ephesians 4:11ff.), and if you want to be fed solid, nourishing meat instead of milk alone at best (Hebrews 5:12-14), you must search out a man who has proven that he truly believes in the Divine inspiration of the words of Scripture. The claim to this belief is easy to make, but hard to back up. All of the fallen televangelists claimed to have great faith in Scripture.

How can we discern the sort of man who can feed and lead us? A full answer to this question would require a paper of its own! But I am pressing this suggestion, which unfortunately would not occur to many churchgoers. If you want a man who is equipped to feed you fresh, solid meat, then you want someone who has gone to the trouble of acquiring familiarity with the original languages of the Bible. As I mentioned earlier, the pastor’s major job before God is to be an Instructor in Ancient Hebrew and Greek Literature. If he has not "paid his dues" by preparing himself in this area, you are entitled to question the depth of his commitment to his task.

Some would say that this is an unfair criterion. They would point out that it is difficult and time-consuming to learn Hebrew and Greek. I certainly agree! Studying Hebrew and Greek is difficult! One would really have to love Scripture deeply, and be very serious indeed about understanding and explaining it, to go to the trouble of learning the languages.

— which, of course, is precisely my point!

There are many ways to learn Hebrew and Greek today. There are formal courses, informal courses; books, cassettes, even talking CD-ROMs. If a man has had the time to enter pastoral ministry, he has had the time to learn the languages. If he has not done so, something is almost surely amiss, either in his training or his convictions. And you have a right to be concerned in such a case.

I can think of no other serious profession where we would accept excuses for failing to complete training before beginning practice. Imagine a surgeon telling you, "Well, yes… I wanted to go to medical school… but people just kept asking me to cut, and I felt ‘called’ to do it, so I never got around to completing my education"! Or again, picture his saying, "I tried medical school, but I was just too burnt-out with studying to finish my classes in anatomy, biology, and pharmacology. Besides, they’re so dry; I wanted to start healing people right away! So I just dropped out and went into practice"!

We would never in a thousand years entrust our bodies to such a man! Yet we entrust the care of our immortal souls to men with far less training and proven commitment in their chosen field! If you do not take the trouble to find a qualified man who has "paid his dues," you are almost surely entrusting the care of your soul to an amateur, a novice.

Now, I do believe that a man can get a sufficient pastoral education without attending a formal, "accredited," degree-granting institution. However, if he has opted not to attend seminary, he will have made sure that he secured an equivalent training. He will have gotten himself apprenticed, or tutored; or he will have done a prodigious amount of studying, including learning the Biblical languages! If you do not find such a man, you may end up no better off than if you underwent brain surgery performed by someone whose qualification is that he once saw a black-and-white video of such an operation.

That is, you might end up with an empty head — and a wallet to match!

Unfortunately, few people insist on this sort of quality from the man in the pulpit. This is one reason why so many personal study helps and programs keep popping up: because people have grown to assume that they cannot get solid Bible help from their own pastor. Yet one of the most important choices you can make, if you wish to mature in your grasp of God’s Word, is this: find a pastor who is thoroughly equipped - so that he can equip you (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)!


3. "What translation should I read?"

First, let me say a brief word about the major philosophies of translating the Bible.

There are two basic approaches to translation: the formal equivalence approach, and the dynamic equivalence approach.

The formal equivalence approach is essentially a literal translation, tries to remain as word-for-word as possible. The "plus" of this method of translation is that it guards against the translators’ inserting their own opinions and interpretations into the Bible. Further, it helps the student of the English text see the emphases of the authors themselves, if each English word really represents an underlying Hebrew or Greek word, and if the same English words usually translate the same Greek words. The "minus" of this approach is that the translation often has little literary elegance or style, and can seem wooden or stilted. This is unavoidable, since English idioms and grammar are different than Greek or Hebrew.

Dynamic equivalence is said to mean "thought for thought." It can involve some or much re-phrasing, and paraphrasing, of the original words. In this method, the original text is transformed into the English grammar and idioms which the translators think will capture the impact ("dynamic") intended by the original writer. The obvious "plus" of this approach is that it makes for smoother and easier reading. A translation in this style is less daunting to a non-Christian, a new Christian, or one whose reading skills are less than might be desired.

However, a very consequential "minus" is the fact that this approach virtually guarantees that the translators will inject their own interpretations into the text very frequently. This is often done without any notice or warning whatever to the English reader.3 Another "minus" is that it makes systematic study almost impossible for the student of the English text. He never knows whether what he is reading represents a Greek or Hebrew word or not.

Let me illustrate this last point. Suppose that one is reading the New International Version of Galatians, and is struck by the phrase "sinful nature," in 5:16 and following. He has heard, perhaps, that there are various Greek synonyms for "sin. He wonders which one of them is found in this verse. Further, he is struck by the term "nature." He sees that the Christian is said to have both the Holy Spirit and a sinful nature (v. 17). He wonders how he can apparently have two natures.

Yet, without other study tools (or a well-trained pastor), he cannot know that neither "sinful" nor "nature" is actually found in the Greek text! In fact, "sinful nature" simply translates the Greek word sarx, which means "flesh" — and which is so translated by the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New King James Version, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. This, then, makes a fair demonstration of the fact that the New International Version is more of a "dynamic equivalence" (paraphrased) version, whereas the other four are more in the direction of "formal equivalence" (literal) versions.

And so also, the NIV’s translation commits the reader to a particular interpretation of the word sarx. It is a nature, a sinful nature, which the Christian evidently still possesses along with his new nature. This would lead a reader who depends on this version alone to think that the Bible teaches that Christians have two complete natures, as Christ did. Christ was both God and man; and so (he could think), the Christian is both a lost sinner and a saved saint.

By contrast, the more literal renderings of the other four versions leave the question open to the reader — as, indeed, it should be!

For study purposes, then, I recommend the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB) , in any edition prior to the 1995 Update4, or the New King James Version (NKJ). These are fundamentally literal translations done by Bible-believers. Most non-literal renderings are indicated by marginal notations. I also recommend the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), though it is a bit more dynamic... sometimes! It perhaps represents a midway point between formal and dynamic approaches: very readable, yet more literal than not, most of the time.

The New King James Version (NKJV) is odd in some ways. It is difficult to defend the production of a new, American edition of the centuries-old, British King James Version — which the NKJV proudly admits that it is — as opposed to a brand-new translation into American English. The quality of the Greek textual basis for the NKJV is also debatable. However, I have grown to appreciate that it is often even more literal than the NASB, which I used to recommend solely, and it eliminates the archaic and now-indefensible "thee's" and "thou's."

Fifty scholars are listed as connected with the NKJV, presumably forming the NKJV "revision" committee. Some of these scholars are quite solid in their academic background and reputation. However, one wonders what were the qualifications and responsibilities for the "Overview Committee," whose members include individuals not widely known for linguistic scholarship (i.e. Jerry Falwell, Ben Haden, Jay Kesler, Clyde Narramore, E. V. Hill, etc.). One also puzzles over other members' qualifications, such as Mary C. Crowley, who is simply listed as "Founder, President Home Interiors and Gifts, Inc." or again, Cyril Black, "Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant." These may be fine people, but one wonders what their qualifications were for creating a Bible translation? Were these only financial supporters, or did they also influence the translation? And if so, how… and why?

If you want a still more literal translation for study purposes, you might get an old American Standard Version (ASV; made in 1901). The problem here is that the language is quite wooden and archaic.

The New International Version (NIV) is made by good scholars, is very popular, and is very readable. However, it does far too much paraphrasing, and far too much interpreting. As noted earlier, the problem with paraphrasing is that it involves too much of the translators’ interpretation. The NIV does this far too often, without alerting readers of their actions.

The NIV might make a good first-read of the Bible, or a good children’s version, as long as the new reader understands that he is getting a lot of interpretation mixed in with his translation. Fortunately, some of the interpretation is correct, while other renderings are indefensible. For instance, the NIV has "unspiritual" instead of the more literal "made of flesh" in Romans 7:14, and, as I have already indicated, "sinful nature" instead of "flesh." These may seem like small differences to you now, but when it comes to understanding Paul’s doctrine, these (and other) inaccuracies will really handicap any student. I basically do not recommend the NIV. When you want to study more seriously, get a more litera1 version such as the NASB, NKJV, or ESV.

Various other versions, honorable mention. I have been excited over the release of The English Standard Bible (ESV) in late 2001. Its translation philosophy is fundamentally that of formal equivalence (explained above), yet it is also generally quite readable. It uses the old RSV text as a basis, but thoroughly edits and redoes it, cleansing it thoroughly (as far as I've seen) of the liberal taint which spoiled that edition. I have been reading it daily and making some notes. At present, my brief comment would be that it is conservative in two senses of the word, one good and one bad. It is conservative in that it approaches the Bible with the premise that it is what it claims to be: the very word of God. Therefore, one will not find liberal reconstructions reflected in the translation. (The earlier RSV, for example, was notorious for rendering `almah as "young woman." In the ESV, that word is correctly translated "virgin," without even a footnote mentioning the alternative.) Thus, the ESV is conservative doctrinally, which is good.

However, it is also "conservative" in that it repeats some of the mistakes of previous translations, and has some traditionalistic renderings which cannot be easily defended linguistically. For instance, Proverbs 22:6 is rendered "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." This is similar to the KJV, RSV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, etc. The only problem is that the Hebrew text has nothing corresponding to "he should go"! It simply says "according to his way," which points to an entirely different rendering and interpretation! And the ESV simply stays with tradition. Examples could easily be multiplied (including the indefensible use of LORD for Yahweh in the OT, without even a note in the Preface; see question 7 elow). This is conservative in a bad sense, in the sense of sticking with tradition evidently for tradition's sake.

A far more independent rendering is the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the full edition of which was released in 2004. I read the entire NT, and very frequently was delighted and surprised at the translators' willingness to depart from tradition so as to render the text more accurately (as in Romans 12:6, and Colossians 3:16; or its translation of "tongues" as "languages"). But it is marred in odd ways. For instance, with no explanation that I've found, the Greek Christos is sometimes rendering "Christ," and sometimes "Messiah." Now, all three words are equivalent, and none is exactly a translation. "Christ" transliterates the Greek word Christos, which means "anointed one," as "Messiah" transliterates the Hebrew word mashiach, which has an identical meaning. So, they switch one transliteration for another, without explaining why they do it at all. Odder still, I have found no rationale as to why some passages will have have both "Messiah" and "Christ" transliterating the very same word, within a few verses of each other (i.e. Colossians 3:1 and 11).

I have read through much of the Old Testament, with pleasure. Again, some of the renderings are very fresh and independent. But other oddities can be observed here, as well. For instance, the Hebrew ledawid, found in the Psalm titles, is usually translated "of David," as in "A psalm of David" (Psalm 4, title), or just "Of David" (25, title). The le element is a preposition, which can mean "for," "by," or "of" (i.e. belonging to). Dawid is simply "David," The HCSB renders ledawid by "Davidic." In itself, that is a possible rendering. But it comes to grief in titles such as that of Psalm 3, which even the HCSB is forced to render, "A psalm of David when he fled from his son Absalom." Also, the same grammatical construction (with a different name) in Psalm 50's title is rendered "of Asaph" — not "Asaphic."

"Davidic" was a clever idea, but not a good one. Someone should have proposed rendering ledawid as "Davidic," and the rest of the committee should have commended him for his inventiveness, and voted him down.

Odder still is their treatment of the name of God in the Old Testament. God's personal name, used more than 6,000 times, is "Yahweh." The HCSB breaks with the indefensible tradition of most other translations by actually using "Yahweh" in the text, as they should. The problem is that they only do it sometimes! The name "Yahweh" can be found in nearly eighty verses. That is good. It is a definite improvement over most English translations. It means they did it right eighty times.

But it also means they did it wrong some six thousand times, by no rationale that I could explain or defend.

Finally, calling it the "HOLMAN Christian Standard" pretty well guarantees a limited audience, as obviously no other publisher will or can publish a Bible with that title. If no broadening is planned, this is unfortunate, as it is a rendering deserving of wide distribution.

One version of the HCSB New Testmant is the Experiencing the Word New Testament. Onthe one hand, this version has some nice Greek word studies in the margin; on the other, it is bedecked with some astonishingly wretched marginal notes by Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God. (For instance, attached to Matthew 2:13a is this note: "When God speaks to you, you will be able to know He is the One speaking, and you will know clearly what He is saying to you." So now we can all start looking for angels to appear to us in our sleep! Oh, brother!)

In sum, I recommend the HCSB. Perhaps future editions will iron out the Messiah/Christ oddness, and eliminate the "LORD" albatross. I hope so, as it is a rendering with great promise: readable, yet solidly grounded in the original text.

The Modern Language Bible (MLB) is an older, more readable, slightly paraphrased, conservative translation is the Modern Language Bible. Its renderings of the Proverbs are often both striking, accurate, and memorable.

Many adults read the Living Bible (LB). This is purely and simply unfortunate, and I know of no excuse for it. The LB was first made for children, and yet adults and even (shockingly and embarrassingly) pastors use it. The LB is not a "bad translation" — in fact, it is not a translation at all, good or bad! It is a complete paraphrase. It was made by Kenneth Taylor, a man with apparently no expertise in Greek or Hebrew, who simply read English translations and commentaries and then wrote down what he supposed that the Bible was saying, in his own words. Therefore, it is a third-hand version. That is, it is twice-removed from the original text of Scripture. It is a paraphrase of a translation of the original. You are thus one step further removed from the original text of Scripture. I recommend that you pass it by entirely.

You may encounter folks who believe that the King James Version (KJV) is the only real translation. They are known as "King James only" people. (I recently saw a defense of the KJV with the title, God Only Wrote One Bible — prompting the inevitable response, "And it definitely was not the King James Version!") This position is incorrect, for many reasons. Perhaps the most fundamental reason — although it might make KJV-only folks very angry to hear it — is this: if a translation means rendering words from one language into another, the KJV no longer even fully qualifies as a translation! The KJV was made in 1611, over 380 years ago. Nobody today speaks the dialect in which the KJV was written. The language of seventeenth-century Great Britain is not the language of twentieth-century America, as any first-time reader of the KJV will immediately attest.

The New Living Translation is, as far as I can tell, simply a paraphrase done by people capable of doing better. I cannot for the life of me explain how this is any more of a "translation" than the LB is. Perhaps the "translators" looked at the Greek and Hebrew texts, before reeling off their almost completely untethered paraphrases? I had to read a good deal of this aloud to my son Josiah as part of our homeschooling Bible curriculum, and would not infrequently catch myself gasping, and shaking my head, at the utterly paraphrased nature of its "renderings." It is not a reliable translation, whatever its virtues as a paraphrase might be.

People who did not grow up with the King James Version virtually have to learn a new language while they read the Bible, in order to understand the KJV. I do not see the point in casting a further obstacle in the way of a person’s understanding Scripture. Those who virtually make KJV-reading a law for truly spiritual Christians come perilously close to suggesting that God did not speak in the common language of living people!

The truth is that the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible were the commonplace dialects of their day. In fact, as mentioned briefly above, the Greek dialect in which the NT was written is called the Koiné, which means "common." It was, if you will, "street-Greek," the Greek of the common man. To be sure, the subject matter of the NT, plus the skill and character of the writers, makes for some breathtakingly lovely and lofty passages. Yet the Greek in which those passages were written was not a completely different dialect from the vernacular.

Further, although the KJV was a masterful translation at the time, it is not perfect. For instance, the NASB renderings of Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 correctly bring out the way the Greek text indicates the fact that Christ is God. The KJV misses and thus obscures that fact in its rendering of these texts.

Some other versions are observably influenced by an anti-Biblical, liberal bias, toning down such doctrines as the Godhood of Christ, or blood atonement. The Good News Bible is a liberal, paraphrased translation, and the New Revised Standard Version is an almost laughably liberal mistranslation. (It is justly infamous for the elimination of allegedly "sexist" language, which makes for some rather hysterical inconsistencies.) I encourage you not to waste your money on either one. If you do happen to read one, do not confuse it with an actual Bible.

You may be confused by Bibles named "Ryrie Study Bible," the "Open Bible," the "New Scofield Reference Edition," and the like. These are not separate translations, but rather are standard translations with added study helps designed by different people. For instance, the Ryrie Study Bible has been offered in KJV, NKJV, NIV, or NASB. Determine which translation you want, and then pick the edition you want.

I recommend the Ryrie Study Bible, expanded edition, with some reservations. It contains a large amount of helpful material, including notes that help in keeping track of chronology, in placing the locations of incidents, and even some archeological information. The interpretive notes generally are, in my opinion, sound. The margins wide enough for students to take notes. However, as with all study editions, keep in mind that only the Bible text is free from error, while Ryrie’s footnotes may err (as does the note on Isaiah 7:14). If you keep in mind the difference between the infallible and inerrant text, and the fallible footnotes, the helps can do just that: help!


4. "Wait a minute — you mentioned ‘taking notes’ in the Bible margin. Is it really OK to write in a Bible?"

Which would God rather see? Would He rather find a neat, tidy, perfectly-preserved, lovely, inviolate Bible, whose shiny gold-edged pages still stick together, because they have never been opened? Or would He rather see a dog-eared, well-worn Bible, with highlighted and underlined words, the pages filled with good sermon and study notes? I have no doubt that the latter would please Him more (cf. Psalm 1:1, 2).

The point is, God intends that we learn His Word, that we dwell on it, that we hide it in our hearts and make it ours (Psalms 1; 119:9, 11; John 8:31, 32; Colossians 3:16, etc.). There is nothing irreverent about writing down thoughts and discoveries that help us understand or apply God’s Word. However, I myself tend to make my notes in pencil — because, although the Word will never change, my understanding must continue to grow!


5. "Please explain about chapters, verses, books, and all that. I get lost when pastors and others refer to ‘Matthew six-twenty-one,’ and so on."

Then I’m glad you asked. If you will look at the Table of Contents of your Bible, you are likely to see a long list of names, beginning with Genesis, then Exodus, then Leviticus, and then so on through to Revelation. (No, "Concordance" is not part of the actual Bible!) In an English book we would think of these as chapters; however, they are the books of the Bible. That is to say, most of them are separate books, often written by different authors at different times.

These books, in turn, are usually subdivided into chapters. Some books of the Bible have many chapters (Isaiah, for instance, has sixty-six chapters). Others have only one chapter (i.e. Philemon).

These chapters are broken down into verses, for ease in referring to Bible portions. If you look at Genesis, you will probably see something like "Chapter One"; then you will periodically see ascending Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.), until the next chapter begins. These numbers indicate verses of the Bible. So, for instance, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," is Genesis, chapter one, verse one. The usual way of writing this would be "Genesis 1:1" (or, if abbreviated, "Gen. 1:1").

Therefore, if you hear someone refer to "Matthew six twenty one," he is referring to Matthew 6:21, which means the twenty-first verse of the sixth chapter of the book of Matthew.

One partial exception to this procedure is the book of Psalms, at the middle of your Bible. "Psalms" means "songs" (the Hebrew title of the book actually means "praises"). Rather than being divided into chapters, Psalms is divided into one hundred and fifty separate psalms written by different authors. Therefore, Psalm 2 would mean the second Psalm, rather than the second chapter of Psalms. Compare it in your mind to a hymnbook. We "turn to hymn 43," not "hymns 43," and certainly not "the forty-third chapter of Hymns"! Save "Psalms" for a reference to more than one Psalm.

It is also important to remember that original writers did not divide their writings into chapters and verses (except in the case of Psalms, where most or all of the psalms were written separately). This means that the chapter and verse divisions, while helpful, are not inspired. In fact, sometimes they are clearly wrong, awkward, or hard to understand. At times, remembering that chapter divisions are not inspired helps to understand difficult verses (i.e. Matthew 16:28 to 17:1).


6. "Since you mentioned it, what is a ‘Concordance’?"

A Concordance is like a special index of Bible verses, alphabetized by one of the words in the verses. This is very useful; sometimes you only remember a word of phrase from a verse, and can find the verse by means of a Concordance.

For instance, you remember some verse about God loving the world, but you can’t remember where it is. You figure that it wouldn’t help to look up "God" or "the," because there are too many verses with those words in them! So you look up "loved" or "world," and, depending on how full your Concordance is, you might find the verse you wanted: John 3:16.

Your Bible probably has a relatively brief Concordance at the back. You can also get what is called an exhaustive Concordance for most major versions. These are large books, listing every word in the translation. (Sometimes they omit smaller words such as "a," ‘tan," and "the.") Bible programs for computers include electronic ways of searching for words, and are astonishingly fast. You can search not only words, but phrases as well. (I use the WORDsearch program from NavPress Software, among others.)


7. "Why is ‘Lord’ sometimes printed ‘LORD’? Does that mean that it should be read twice as loud?"

Good question. I would imagine that many have found this little feature incomprehensible. "LORD" is a very unfortunate, superstitious, translators’ trick. God’s personal name in the Old Testament Hebrew text is spelled by consonants represented by YHWH in English, and probably pronounced "Yahweh." (The pronunciation "Jehovah," found in some verses, the ASV, and some hymns, is certainly incorrect,5 although (1) at least it is a name, and thus (2) it is better than LORD).

This personal name of God occurs some 6,823 times in the OT. The Third of the Ten Commandments forbids taking God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7). To avoid doing this, legalistic Jews after the close of the OT elected not to say "Yahweh" at all. They thiking may have gone like this, "Well, let’s see. We can’t take the Name in vain if we never say it!" So, in their synagogue reading of the OT, they substituted the Hebrew word for "Lord." When the Hebrew text was later translated into Greek and other languages, this was locked in, making "Lord" part of the text — even though Yahweh neither means nor sounds anything like "Lord," in Hebrew, Greek, or English! Sadly, though they know better, Christian translators still perpetuate this legalistic practice every time they substitute "LORD" for Yahweh.

You can counter this superstition easily enough in your own reading and studies. Simply reverse the process! Every time you read "LORD" (or "GOD," as in "Lord GOD" [e.g. Isaiah 7:7]), simply re-substitute "Yahweh" in your mind, or out loud. For instance, when you read Psalm 23:la, "The LORD is my shepherd," simply read it for yourself as, "Yahweh is my shepherd." It is worth the effort, as we re-appreciate the personality and uniqueness of God. He is not just "The Deity; whatever you mean by ‘God’," He is the only, true, specific, infinite-personal, self-revealed God of Scripture. As He Himself said, "I am Yahweh - that is My name" (Isaiah 42:8a).


8. "Why are some words in italics? It doesn’t seem to make sense to emphasize them, as with every other book I know."

I think that this feature confuses more people than will admit it out loud! Actually, unlike "LORD," this is a very good translators’ device.

You probably know that other languages are put together differently than English. For this reason, it is neither possible nor desirable to translate woodenly word-for-word. The result would often be nearly or completely unintelligible to us.

Allow an example, if you will. A woodenly literal version of Hebrews 5:14 (with renderings of single words hyphenated together) would be, "Of-mature-ones but is the solid food, of-the-ones on-account-of the use the faculties drilled having to distinguishing of-good both and of-evil." Got that? Not likely! Most English-speakers would find a Bible rendered this way less revealing, and more concealing, like secret code!

In fact, such literality would not even be a translation, since a translation is supposed to render the words and syntax6 of one language in the words and syntax of another. A woodenly literal version would not be English as we speak it! Such is the challenge of moving from one language into another.

For this reason, it is often necessary to supply one or more English words to bring out the sense of the original. In these cases, fundamentally literal translators want the reader to understand which words have been supplied, and are not in the original text. Translations such as the NKJV and the NASB signal this by italicizing the words that are supplied. This smoothing out of the wording is necessary, so that English readers can grasp the meaning of the original.

Let us return to our example, Hebrews 5:14. As I translate from the Greek text into more idiomatic English, I might come up with the following: "but solid food is the diet of the mature, who on account of habit have their7 faculties drilled8 for distinguishing good from evil." The syntax has been smoothed out, and the words, "the diet," have been supplied in italics, to bring out the meaning of the Greek grammar more clearly for English readers.

This way, we can have a translation that is understandable, and yet which preserves its fundamentally literal nature by alerting the reader to translator additions, by means of italics.

(It is interesting to note two differing trends, represented in the ESV and the HCSB. The ESV does not use italics, and so does when words are supplied, no note is made of the fact. The HCSB, by contrast, puts those words in brackets, such as Genesis 2:5a — "No shrub of the field had yet [grown]on the land.")


9. "What is an ‘interlinear’ Bible? Would having one help?"

An "interlinear" is a Greek or Hebrew text, with a word-for-word literal English rendering printed under each line; hence the name "interlinear" — between the lines. I do not recommend owning one.

Why not, after the stress I placed earlier on pastors knowing Hebrew and Greek? Are the sacred languages only the domain of "professionals"? Not at all! With an interlinear, people who are not actually learning the languages may get the false impression that they are somehow closer to the original text. In fact, they are not.9 There is far more to learning a language than looking at a literal translation of it!

To learn a language, one must learn the alphabet, the vocabulary, the grammar and the syntax. An interlinear may make a good "training wheel" for someone in the process of learning the language, so long as his aim is to grow out of the training wheels!

So the short answer is: someone not learning the language will not be helped by an interlinear, and someone who has learned it should seldom need one.


10. "What I want to know is this: where should I start reading?"

Of course, there is no one "right" place to start. If you are a Christian, and have never read the Bible through, I urge you to begin to do so at once. Ask your pastor if your assembly is on some reading schedule. Our assembly has often provided a reading schedule which will take readers through the OT once, and the NT twice, in the course of a year. It is good to use a plan that has you reading both Old and New Testaments, since some folks may become discouraged during the occasional lengthy, technical portions of the OT.

If you are not a Christian, then I would encourage you to read through the Gospel of John, and then perhaps the letter to the Romans.

If you have recently read through the Bible and want a change of pace for awhile, you could read five psalms a day, which will enable you to finish the book in a month. Or again, reading a chapter of Proverbs a day would take up the average month. Or combine one of these with reading a chapter or so of the NT each day.

The most important principles are two: (1) Make a plan, and (2) Stick to it!

First, then, make a plan. God intends that we make plans! "To man belong the arrangements made by the heart"10 (Proverbs 16:la). Again, "The heart of man thinks out his way" (Proverbs 16:9a). There is nothing irreverent or "fleshly" about making a plan. God means us to make plans, as part of the responsible conduct of our lives.

He who aims at nothing is sure to hit it every time. Incredible as it may (and should) seem, there are people who claim to have been Christians for five, ten, twenty, even thirty years, who have never once read through the Bible. Maybe they "always meant to." No one knows. It is impossible to tell what people "mean" to do! One may only observe what they actually do. And an incredible number of long-time professing Christians have — actually, regardless of what they "meant" to do — never read the Bible through.

Make a plan to read the Bible, and put the plan into action.

Your plan should be realistic and not self-defeating. That is, most people could easily find time to read several chapters a day. On the other hand, he who sets out to read the entire Bible in a week is probably dooming himself to failure!

The second principle, once you have made a plan, is: stick to it! "The ideas of the sharp man surely lead to profit" (Proverbs 21:5). The Hebrew word for "sharp" is translated "diligent" by others, but more literally means "sharp" or "decisive." The diligent person makes a plan, and then cuts through the resistance and obstacles until he achieves his goal. God wants us to come up with good ideas, and then decisively to implement them. There is nothing godly about mystically "waiting on God" to do what God tells us to do! Nothing in the Bible encourages such passive mysticism; a great deal in the Bible encourages work inspired by faith!

That is what the sharp person does. In Proverbs 13:4, the opposite of the "sharp" person is the "sluggard," the sluggishly lazy person. The Bible has nothing good to say about the sluggard. God cuttingly lampoons that lazybones for his failure to finish what he starts. "The soul of the sluggard desires, and has nothing, But the soul of sharp men is made fat" (Proverbs 13:4). He wishes that he could get what he wants — but he just will not do what he has to do to get there! "The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; He will not even bring it back unto his mouth!" (Proverbs 19:24). Too lazy to eat! He has a bowl full of food, but he will not do what he needs to do to get the food where it is most needed!

In just this way, some folks today are spiritual sluggards. They wish that they knew more. They wish that they could grow. They desire to be mature, to be the sorts of people on whom others could lean, instead of constantly needing to lean on others.11 They wish they had more to say to unbelievers, or to needy fellow-believers. Yet they will not lay the plans, and make the moves, that are necessary to walk the path to maturity. They are spiritual sluggards. We would do well to heed these warnings.

I recommend this simple plan: set apart a time each day, dedicated to doing your daily Bible reading. Once you have done so, hold to it as firmly as possible.

Some well-intentioned folks seem to think, "Well, I’ll finish all my other responsibilities, and then I should have enough time left over to read my Bible." Then Satan seems to make sure that such folks always have a lot to do! If he can get us so bogged down and behind the schedule, he can get us into the habit of being out of the habit. In this way he does what he loves best: countering God’s will (cf. Hebrews 5:13, 14).

I recommend an application of the principle found in Proverbs 3:9 — "Honor Yahweh from your wealth, And from the first of all your produce." That is, give God the first, not the leftovers.

Of course, there will be exceptions; I am not trying to create a new legalism! But we are observably as regular as a clock about other daily needs, such as eating, washing, clothing, and the like. Hence, it seems reasonable that we could make the same commitment here. Indeed, I have found that, when I am consistent with this principle, it is surprising how much I can accomplish with the time left over after Bible reading. But this is partly because I choose to do my Bible reading at the beginning of my day,12 whereas others are more comfortable with doing it at the end of their day.

In my opinion and observation, an end-of-the-day plan is more easily interrupted. Still, there truly is no one right way. The important thing is to do it, and to do it in the way that works best for you. If one way has not worked well after some effort, try another.


11. "I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the books of the Bible. Is there any simpler way to look at them?"

Indeed there is. In fact, our English Bibles are laid out quite reasonably. (The order of books in the Hebrew OT is different, and less transparent; but that need not detain us here.) Using your Bible’s Table of Contents, compare the following:

LAW (or PENTATEUCH) Genesis through Deuteronomy
HISTORY Joshua through Esther
POETRY Job through Ecclesiastes
PROPHECY Isaiah through Malachi

GOSPELS Matthew through John
PAUL'S LETTERS (or EPISTLES) Romans through Philemon
GENERAL LETTERS (or EPISTLES) Hebrews through Jude
PROPHECY Revelation

This is the simplest descriptive subdivision, and probably most useful for a new Bible reader. You may be exposed to others as you grow and learn.


12. "Isn’t the Bible really just open to anybody’s interpretation? One person gets one thing out of it, another gets another; this denomination says all the others are wrong, and the other denominations say the same thing. Isn’t the Bible just whatever you make it be?"

I’m sorry…did you say something? In particular? When you asked that question (or whatever it was), did you mean anything by it, anything specific? Or do your words mean whatever I want them to mean? May I simply tell myself that you really meant that the Bible is very straightforward, and that anybody who really wants to can understand it easily enough?

Or, on the other hand, perhaps I could tell myself that you meant to say that your favorite food is summer squash... or that you think the world is flat...or that you believe that you were a professional pig-kisser in a former life. Would that be all right? Isn’t that a fair way to handle what you said?

You are likely to respond by sputtering, "It certainly is not all right, and it certainly is not fair! I meant what I meant, and I used perfectly clear language! And no, you may not force whatever meaning you wish onto my words! If you think that I cannot say what I mean, and mean what I say, then you must be saying that I am some sort of feeble-minded....." And then maybe you would stop, and realize what I had done.

I handled you the way your question suggested that we handle the Bible!

No, the Bible does not mean whatever we want it to mean. The Bible means what it means, what God meant when He moved the writers of Scripture to pen the thoughts He had given them (cf. 2 Peter 1:20, 21). To express these thoughts, God used understandable, normal human language — as would anyone wishing to be understood.

It is true that some of the language in the Bible is more easily interpreted than other portions, but the central message is clear. For instance, when the Bible says, "For thus did God love the world: that He gave His unique Son, in order that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but should have life eternal!" (John 3:16), the meaning is quite clear. When Jesus says, "I Myself am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6), His language is not inherently fuzzy.

I would guess that you mostly asked the question because you have heard so many say it. If enough people insisted that the sky was pea-green, I think we’d begin to wonder what we’d missed. It is my observation that most people who seriously claim that the Bible cannot be understood do so out of one of two motivations.

First, many say it out of sheer intellectual laziness. They have never really studied enough of the Bible to drown a flea, but they think (rightly) that the doing would take some effort. And basically, they just do not want to go to the trouble. But they have a vague feeling that they really should — so they come up with the respectable-sounding excuse, "The Bible is impossible to interpret." To such people, I would respond as I did at the start of this section.

There is a second, and more deadly, motivation behind this idea. I think that a great many others who say this are not being completely candid. Their problem is not that they cannot understand the Bible. They understand it just fine. The problem is that they do not like what it says. In that case, it is a nice pretext to say, "The Bible is ambiguous" — when it really is not.

I am not at all suggesting that I think that all of the Bible is easily understood. Many passages, so far, have utterly defeated me! I have puzzled long and hard over quite a few Scriptures, and am still scratching my head over more than enough.

But I am saying that the Bible’s fundamental message, and its many teachings and directions, are explicit and not ambiguous. What the Bible says about such truths as the nature of God, man’s dilemma, the way of salvation, the consequences of unbelief, promiscuity, lying, homosexuality, abortion, theft, adultery, materialism, marriage, keeping promises, self-righteousness, pride, abortion, submitting to authority and many other matters, is crystal-clear.

However, what the Bible teaches is not always convenient, nor is it always to our liking.

I can respect the honesty of someone who says, "I think the Bible is quite clear on [salvation, sin, whatever], but I want to do what I want to do, so I cannot be bothered by it." However, plagued by a guilty conscience, many people come up instead with rationalizations and evasions. And this idea that the Bible is hopelessly obscure is one such evasion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, "talk is cheap," as the saying goes. Let me back up my claim that the Bible is fundamentally clear by discussing at some length the guiding principles for understanding the Bible. Please read part two of this essay, in which I will discuss some principles for reading the Bible with understanding.


1The Greek word is usually translated "disciples," and means "students," "pupils."

2 This fact will be developed further, below.

3 For instance, formal equivalent translations such as the New American Standard Bible, or the King James Version, utilize italics when the translators insert a word which, though not in the original text, they feel is required to make sense of the verse in English. Dynamic equivalent translations tend to do no such thing, since the translators feel free to supply words pretty much at will.

4 I do not heartily recommend the 1995 Update edition of the NASB, however. Its one improvement is to eliminate "Thee" and "Thou," which are without warrant in the original languages. But then it makes many changes which move the NASB in the direction of formal equivalence, such as dropping conjunctions ("and," "but") which the new committee feels are unnecessary.

5 "1ncorrect" for several reasons. The Hebrew text was originally written only in consonants. God's Name would be represented by the consonants Y-H-W-H. This was probably pronounced "Yahweh." Synagogue readers (as I explain in the text) would substitute the Hebrew words for "Lord" or "God" when they read the Name aloud. When the Hebrew scribes put vowel-signs into the text, they put a slightly-altered version of the vowels from the Hebrew word for "Lord," since this was the word they would commonly read aloud in its place. If the word thus formed were transliterated, it would look something like "Yehovah" - though it would never be said aloud that way. Later foreign-language versions used "I" or "J" in place of the initial "Y," and the "w' -sound was represented by a "v." Hence, Jehovah - which is, accordingly, wrong in two ways. First, it has the wrong vowels. Second, it is an "Englishized" pronunciation of a transliteration of the wrong spelling of the original Hebrew word!

6 "Syntax" means the way words relate to each other in forming clauses and sentences. If words are the bones of communication, syntax is the assembled skeleton, i.e. how the bones fit together.

7 Literally "the," the article standing for the pronoun.

8 Or "exercised," from the Greek word gumnaz.

9 In fact, sometimes they end up further away. I have twice recently heard people trying to defend Sabbath (Saturday) worship as the law for Christians by misusing interlinears.

10 It is very important to remember that, in Scripture, the "heart" is not the center of the emotions, as many imagine. Rather, the heart is the center of our processes of thinking and deciding (cf. Proverbs 4:23).

11 The sad truth is that far too many today think of spiritual maturity as an optional extra - and they opt out! They have no desire to grow, to learn, to become responsible and productive. And yet even among those who do have this necessary desire, still less take the actions necessary to progress along the path of spiritual growth.

12 Again, not meant as a new law. It was impossible, for instance, during a time of working a graveyard shift.

Copyright © 1997, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Daniel J. Phillips
All Rights Reserved

Return to Biblical Christianity Home Page